Pascal and Amoris Laetitia

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This man understood the Society of Jesus. (Source)

Amidst the various scandals roiling the Church right now, let us not forget that the Pope has still not resolved the controversy over communion for the the divorced and remarried. Amoris Laetitia continues to divide Catholics over sacramental discipline and the deeper theology of marriage it concerns.

I study early modern French Catholicism. Recently in my research, I was reading a passage out of Pascal’s Lettres Provinciales that seemed germane to the current debate.

“O father, how these maxims of yours will draw people to your confessionals!”

“Yes,” [the Jesuit] replied, “you would hardly believe what numbers are in the habit of frequenting them; ‘we are absolutely oppressed and overwhelmed, so to speak, under the crowd of our penitents — penitentium numero obruimur’— as is said in The Image of the First Century.”

“I could suggest a very simple method,” said I, “to escape from this inconvenient pressure. You have only to oblige sinners to avoid the proximate occasions of sin; that single expedient would afford you relief at once.”

“We have no wish for such a relief,” rejoined the [Jesuit] monk; “quite the reverse; for, as is observed in the same book, ‘the great end of our Society is to labor to establish the virtues, to wage war on the vices, and to save a great number of souls.’ Now, as there are very few souls inclined to quit the proximate occasions of sin, we have been obliged to define what a proximate occasion is. ‘That cannot be called a proximate occasion,’ says Escobar, ‘where one sins but rarely, or on a sudden transport — say three or four times a year’; or, as Father Bauny has it, once or twice in a month.’ Again, asks this author, ‘what is to be done in the case of masters and servants, or cousins, who, living under the same roof, are by this occasion tempted to sin?’”

“They ought to be separated,” said I.

“That is what he says, too, ‘if their relapses be very frequent: but if the parties offend rarely, and cannot be separated without trouble and loss, they may, according to Suarez and other authors, be absolved, provided they promise to sin no more, and are truly sorry for what is past.’”

This required no explanation, for he had already informed me with what sort of evidence of contrition the confessor was bound to rest satisfied.

“And Father Bauny,” continued the monk, “permits those who are involved in the proximate occasions of sin, ‘to remain as they are, when they cannot avoid them without becoming the common talk of the world, or subjecting themselves to inconvenience.’ ‘A priest,’ he remarks in another work, ‘may and ought to absolve a woman who is guilty of living with a paramour, if she cannot put him away honourably, or has some reason for keeping him — si non potest honeste ejicere, aut habeat aliquam causam retinendi — provided she promises to act more virtuously for the future.’”

“Well, father,” cried I, “you have certainly succeeded in relaxing the obligation of avoiding the occasions of sin to a very comfortable extent, by dispensing with the duty as soon as it becomes inconvenient; but I should think your fathers will at least allow it be binding when there is no difficulty in the way of its performance?”

“Yes,” said the father, “though even then the rule is not without exceptions. For Father Bauny says, in the same place, ‘that any one may frequent profligate houses, with the view of converting their unfortunate inmates, though the probability should be that he fall into sin, having often experienced before that he has yielded to their fascinations. Some doctors do not approve of this opinion, and hold that no man may voluntarily put his salvation in peril to succour his neighbor; yet I decidedly embrace the opinion which they controvert.’”

“A novel sort of preachers these, father! But where does Father Bauny find any ground for investing them with such a mission?”

“It is upon one of his own principles,” he replied, “which he announces in the same place after Basil Ponce. I mentioned it to you before, and I presume you have not forgotten it. It is, ‘that one may seek an occasion of sin, directly and expressly — primo et per se — to promote the temporal or spiritual good of himself or his neighbour.’”

On hearing these passages, I felt so horrified that I was on the point of breaking out.

(Pascal, Lettres Provinciales, X)

Pascal was writing against morally lax Jesuits. Plus ça change.

There are, of course, those who would chide me for citing an avowed Jansenist in our present moment. But I worry that the advocates of the Church’s traditional teaching on communion for the divorced and remarried, and thus for her traditional teaching on marriage generally, are going the way of the Jansenists. They have a Pope set against them who is playing hardball. And a Jesuit, at that. Amoris Laetitia is reaching Unigenitus-level status with regards to popular outrage among the clergy and faithful. The entire discourse of a “smaller, purified Church” that comes up in conversations with “sound” Catholics all has an eerie ring to it. The Jansenists’ Figurist exegesis often spoke of a minority party of “true Christians” set against a corrupt, false church. If you were to open a copy of the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques from the 1730’s, you’d find populist polemical language similar to what passes on 1Peter5 or What’s Up With Francis-Church? or The Remnant or LifeSite or Rorate Caeli. If it hasn’t happened already, I wouldn’t be surprised to find any of these sites (or those like them) referring to Amoris Laetitia as “the Abomination in the Holy Place.”

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Unigenitus, or Amoris Laetitia? (Source)

The political divisions among the episcopate also remind me of that tumultuous time. The opposition to Unigenitus, like the opposition to Amoris, goes across cultural barriers. Jansenism was not just a French or Flemish aberration. It spread across Europe and even infiltrated the college of Cardinals. And popularly, much of the Jansenists’ ire was directed at the Jesuits. Likewise, today.

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Destruction of the Abbey of Port-Royal des Champs (Source).

We have our Nuns of Port-Royal in the Franciscans of the Immaculate and the Order of Malta. And what a coincidence that we, like the Jansenists, should valorize four bishops for challenging a Pope!

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The four “apellant” bishops who opposed Unigenitus by an appeal to an ecumenical council. Much like Cardinal Burke, Bishop Soanen of Senez, their leader, was exiled and left without either a see or responsibilities. (Source)

Of course, the whole axis on which this all turns is “frequent communion.” How like Antoine Arnaud does Cardinal Burke appear! Before he started opposing communion for the divorced and remarried, he opposed communion for politicians who publicly dissent from the Church’s teaching on abortion and same-sex marriage. I don’t offer this comparison as a criticism. Indeed, I agree with the Cardinal’s reading of the Canons and the Scriptures. But it is hard not to see the likeness.

There are differences. In the 18th century, there was no real liturgical fracas like what we’ve witnessed since Vatican II (if anything, our age is much worse on this score). The sex abuse scandal of our own days has no parallel in that era. And the very real political dangers posed by the competing “Catholic” monarchs likewise has no modern correspondent (though with a Pope friendly to the liberal order, who knows?). No civil authority is going to suppress sound Catholics – at least, sound on this precise issue – in the way that Louis XIV persecuted the Jansenists.

But the structural and discursive similarities worry me. They should worry you, too. It’s not enough to say “the Gates of Hell shall not prevail” and all that. That’s only eschatological. And in this context, it’s little more than putting one’s head in the sand. Something has to change at the organizational level. I don’t know what that would look like, or who in particular needs to act to ensure the preservation of the Truth. But I hope that we who accept Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage don’t end up convulsing in “another – doubtless very different” cemetery of Saint-Médard.

ADDENDUM: I want to be very clear that I am not making a theological comparison, but a structural, Church-political one. I am not suggesting that the defenders of the Church’s teaching on marriage advance Jansenist principles, but that the shape of the controversy up to this point has developed in a concerning way by placing them in a discursive and political position that approximates that of the later Jansenists.

A Spanish Mystic of the Sacred Heart

Providence sometimes ordains that we should come across new friends in Heaven at exactly the right time. This happy accident of grace has just occurred to me.

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Holocausto de Corazones al Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, 17th century Mexican. (Source)

I’ve been reading about the Jesuits of the late 17th and early 18th centuries quite a lot recently in connection with my research. My admiration for them has grown tremendously. I always used to have a devotion to the Jesuit martyrs of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and to an extent, I still do. But the Continental Jesuits who did so much to combat the spread of Jansenism are a marvel to behold. For all my jokes about the suppression of the Jesuits and my appreciation of Pascal, I have to say that the Jansenists were a nasty bunch. The more one studies their history and doctrines, the colder one feels. Thus, I especially admire those tireless evangelists of the Sacred Heart such as St. Claude de la Colombière, whose feast we celebrated yesterday. Along with this revived interest in the Continental Jesuits, I’ve found myself drawn to the Sacred Heart in recent weeks.

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Bl. Bernardo Francisco de Hoyos S.J. (Source)

Into this recent ferment of the spirit came an unexpected intrusion of grace. As I was scrolling through Facebook, I saw that in one of my Catholic groups, someone had posted an article about a mystic and asked what we all thought. I opened the link and discovered a new and remarkable saint: the Blessed Bernardo Francisco de Hoyos, S.J.

The Blessed Bernardo entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1726 when he was not yet fifteen. In the early years of his formation, he felt a strong attraction to the (then) Blessed John Berchmans, a model of Jesuit youth, seeking to emulate him in all things. The young saint later had a powerful “dark night of the soul” that involved demonic torments. When he came out on the other side, however, the Lord appeared to him in some of the most remarkable visions of the age. To wit:

Always holding my right hand, the Lord had me occupy the empty throne; then He fitted on my finger a gold ring…“May this ring be an earnest of our love. You are Mine, and I am yours. You may call yourself and sign Bernardo de Jesus, thus, as I said to my spouse, Santa Teresa, you are Bernardo de Jesus and I am Jesus de Bernardo. My honor is yours; your honor is Mine. Consider My glory that of your Spouse; I will consider yours, that of My spouse. All Mine is yours, and all yours is Mine. What I am by nature you share by grace. You and I are one!” – The Visions of Bernard Francis De Hoyos, S.J., Henri Béchard, S.J.

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A modern rendition of Bl. Bernardo. (Source)

Assuming this quote is accurate – like the author from whom I took it, I am unable to verify it (Bechard’s book is extremely rare) – it evinces an eminent degree of spiritual maturity. Dom Mark Daniel Kirby reports on more of the young saint’s experiences:

On August 10, 1729, the Saviour, covered with His Precious Blood, appeared to Bernardo, and showing him the wound in His Side, said, “Rejected by humanity, I come to find my consolation with chosen souls.” Bernardo’s experience closely resembles that of Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque fifty-three years earlier in the Visitation Monastery of Paray-le-Monial in France.

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The Sacred Heart of Jesus. (Source)

It should be no surprise to us, then, that Bl. Bernardo was a profound devotee and propagator of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In 1732, when he was only 22, the Lord entrusted him with the mission of spreading love for the Sacred Heart, both “as a means of personal sanctification and as an effective means for accomplishing the apostolate.” That year, he consecrated himself to the Sacred Heart using St. Claude’s formula. Shortly after, he collaborated on a book about the devotion entitled The Hidden Treasure (alas, I don’t know if it has been translated into English). His brief priesthood – he died of typhus less than a year after ordination – was a total gift to the Sacred Heart. He was known to say, “Oh, how good it is to dwell in the Heart of Jesus.” These were, no doubt, the words of one who dwelt there indeed.

Bl. Bernardo was beatified in Valladolid on April 19, 2010. He is a special patron against the sin of impurity, perhaps because his own chastity was sealed in a mystical marriage to Jesus.

One of the things that truly struck me about Bl. Bernardo’s story – aside from his devotion to the Sacred Heart, which is, as I mention, timely – was his youth. He was only a year older than me when he died. To think that someone could achieve such heights of holiness in such a short time is a wonderful encouragement.

But of course, the growth of a soul is not, strictly speaking, a matter of our own effort. It is the work of the Holy Ghost in us. Bl. Bernardo is an example of what happens when we open ourselves totally to the operations of the Holy Ghost. Not everyone will receive visions. In fact, very few souls are so privileged. But they are given to the Memory of the Church so that we who are less favored may take some inspiration by their example and glimpse more perfectly some aspect of Our Savior. Christ is the one light caught by so many prisms through the centuries. Bl. Bernardo is one such pure glass, shining through the ages to light our way. May he pray for us in this Lenten season.

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Bl. Bernardo Francisco de Hoyos’s vision of the Sacred Heart. (Source)